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Mikhail Kovalchuk: Russia's never had thoughts of giving up

© Vyacheslav Prokofiev/TASS
Kurchatov Institute President in TASS special project TOP OFFICIALS
Andrey Vandenko 
by
Andrey Vandenko

Andrey Vandenko was born on November 8, 1959 in Lugansk, Ukrainian SSR. In 1982, he graduated from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev with a degree in journalism. Since 1989, he has been living and working in Moscow. For over 20 years, he has built his career as a journalist specializing in interviews. His work is published predominantly in Russia’s leading mass media outlets, and he is the recipient of numerous professional awards.

Part 1
About free milk at work in compensation for exposure to occupational hazards, de ja vu and deindustrialization

 

- Are you entitled to getting free milk at work in compensation for hazardous conditions?

- No. Not any more… Before - yes, were used to get some. At the Crystallography Institute, where I’d worked for more than forty years all in all, the hustle and bustle began when free milk began to be distributed among the staff. The milk was brought in in pyramid-like carton packs. Doors were banging here and there and everywhere, busy-looking people could be seen racing up and down the corridors… At a certain point I was even presented with a souvenir made at the Leningrad Porcelain Factory - a bright reminder of those days. It was an exact replica of its carton twin - the red-white-blue tetrahedron-shaped pack the colors of Russia’s flag today. This comparison dawned upon me just recently. Today’s independent Russia was still non-existent, but milk was distributed for free…

Those carton pack had one big flaw: they developed leaks all too often. In some laboratories sour milk was used to ferment improvised yoghurts, while in others people preferred to turn it into cottage cheese. In a word, it was a tiny makeshift dairy factory. Nobody stayed idle.

- And what type of sour milk products did you make?

- My room had no windows. It housed an X-ray machine, a desk and a chair. That’s all. There was no place where I could go to try myself as a milkman, so I consumed pasteurized milk straight. Provided I couldn’t find something stronger to treat myself to…

This (in Kurchatov Institute) is possibly the cleanest place in the whole of Moscow as far as radiation is concerned

- In your room today I see enough windows, but there is a synchrotron two storeys below. Is it the reason why the screen at the entrance to the building shows not only the time of day and air temperature, but also the level of radiation?

- We also put up a large electronic panel on the façade of the Kurchatov Institute to let all passers-by see this information, too. Don’t you worry: we monitor the situation round the clock. This is possibly the cleanest place in the whole of Moscow as far as radiation is concerned.

True, back in the 1940s, in the early days of the Soviet Union’s atom project nobody cared about proper protection from radiation. As you may remember from your physics classes at school, Becquerel discovered the phenomenon of radioactivity accidentally. He had been getting ready for an experiment and spoiled several photographic plates with radiation emitted by uranium salts. For this discovery he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

The first nuclear reactor that was built here, at the Kurchatov Institute, was assembled without giving proper thought to precautions, because the potential risks still remained largely unknown.

- This brings to mind Mikhail Romm’s drama film Nine Days in One Year about Soviet pioneers of nuclear particle physics research, doesn’t it?

- Right. Incidentally, many episodes of that film were shot at the Kurchatov Institute. It was much later, in the early 1960s, when we learned not only how to make bombs, but also how to develop civilian nuclear power. Disposal of nuclear waste was the problem that arose next. And the environmental issues emerged in the limelight just recently. Many started talking about the possibility of a closed fuel cycle, in which every single item should be reprocessed and put to use again.

Chernobyl occurred thirty years ago. After that the industry’s entire potential was switched over to addressing this new task. A special unit for research into the safe development of nuclear power was created within the Kurchatov Institute. It was the idea of Anatoly Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Velikhov. After a series of experiments some fundamental changes were made to the security systems of modern nuclear power plants. Our science council just recently awarded the degree of the Kurchatov Institute’s honorary doctor to Sergey Kiriyenko, the head of the nuclear power corporation Rosatom. Kiriyenko made an excellent report in which he previewed the industry’s development. The state corporation’s current list of contracts is about three hundred billion dollars worth. Russia is a systemic player on the nuclear power market, but it took gigantic efforts to make this possible. In the first place, in the field of security. In that sense Chernobyl was not in vain.

- And yet the level of trust towards nuclear power in Europe has slumped. Austria, the Netherlands, Spain and Poland have outlawed the construction of nuclear power plants and Germany is closing down the existing ones.

- You’ve forgot to mention Lithuania, where the Ignalina NPP was shut down five years ago. I won’t be discussing geopolitics in detail now, but just take a quick look at the three former Soviet republics in the Baltics, all now independent states. They’ve experienced a not very tricky thing that is sometimes called “deindustrialization.” It’s almost complete. The European Union had no need for the Baltic states’ industries for which the Ignalina NPP was providing electricity. The power plant was shut down on the pretext of a campaign for clean environment and security.

Does it make any sense to indulge in saber-rattling and to conquer others’ territories at a time when the same can be achieved without a single shot fired?

- But Germany can by no means suspected of deindustrialization. Germans are surely not their own enemies.

- I am certain that the policy of military colonization that the leading world powers were conducting over the past centuries against weaker and less developed countries has now given way to technological colonization. Does it make any sense to indulge in saber-rattling and to conquer others’ territories at a time when the same can be achieved without a single shot fired? Before, most backward states were the targets of colonization. Now the emphasis is on the developed countries.

In Germany, 37% of electricity the country consumes is nuclear power-generated. Yet it will be prepared to close down the industry altogether of its own accord. I don’t see the reason why. The Germans are very smart, but the French are no fools either, don’t you agree? Nearly three quarters of the electricity that is being produced in France today is generated at its NPPs. This is the second highest level in the world in terms of quality and in the highest from the standpoint of the overall amount. But the French are not in the mood of prohibiting anything. The Areva company, which designs and manufactures equipment for the French nuclear power industry, is one of the largest on the globe and it is our Rosatom’s major contender for future contracts.

I’m not saying that alternative sources of power should not be developed, but they are surely not a panacea

- Germans are going to develop alternative sources of power, aren’t they?

- Let’s take electromobiles for example first. They’ve been talked about a lot of late. They are just great in large megapolisis and for the protection of the environment, no denying that. But please remember one little thing: should all motor vehicles in the world be equipped with electric motors, the generating facilities required to charge the batteries will have to be doubled. At least!  And that’s impossible from both technical and financial points of view. Besides, the electromobile enthusiasts are also arch foes of nuclear power plants. Where can electric power be taken then? From gas and coal-fueled power plants, in defiance of all ecological requirements. Acid rains will literally kill the Earth! Take a look at China, where coal is used on a wide scale…

Solar energy is another proposed option. But enough place for installing the solar cell panels will have to be found first. Ok, you may put them on the roof. They will be just enough for supplying heat and light for your home. But you’ll have to build large power plants anyway to keep industries going.

I’m not saying that alternative sources of power should not be developed, but they are surely not a panacea.

- What should Russia be pressing for in your opinion?

- I’d put it this way. All of us are well aware of the foreign policy situation we are in today. Our Western partners have all the way cultivated the idea, first covertly and then overtly, that Russia is a loser country. It has no modern science, they claimed, its technologies are backward and its prospects are bleak. A mighty media campaign was launched to persuade the world and us that this is really so. One day I was leafing through an illustrated magazine on a plane the air carrier kept on board for passengers to read… It was some jointly published periodical – the authors were Russian and funding foreign. It was very beautiful, bright and on the face of it made sense. An article claiming the demise of the Russian Navy caught my eye. The news that prompted the author to write the story was the launch of a new coastguard ship at the Yantar (Amber) shipyards. The vessel, the article claimed, was a pale replica of its NATO counterparts. The conclusion was the Russian Navy was good for nothing, hopeless and doomed. The text sounded suicidal. The verdict was final, not to be overturned! The accompanying photograph showed an old-time abandoned shipyard and a half-erased slogan on a weather-beaten wall: Glory to Soviet Science! Something in that photo looked awfully familiar to me. I suddenly had that strange de ja vu feeling. And from the depth of my memory I dug up the recollection where I had seen it. At a far-away corner of the Admiralty Shipyards in St. Petersburg! True, the building’s wall was an eyesore, to say the least, but the St. Petersburg’s defense industries that still use this and many other shipyards were already developing and building naval technologies that the West was still utterly ignorant and shouldn’t have the slightest idea of. What I’m trying to say is this. That falsehood was an act of deliberate brainwashing. It was targeted against our youth first and foremost. If you really want to make a career in science, to be successful, its latent message was, get out of this doomed country as fast as you can! And those who were still determined to stay were cautioned that nothing good was in store for them. That thought was repeated so often and so aggressively, that even the authors began to believe their own propaganda.

This explains why it was stunning news for them Russia has never had the slightest invention of giving up to the joy of jubilant victors.

The West is particularly surprised at how we managed to live through it all. So many things were ruined, lost, given away for nothing in the 1990s that for any other country it would’ve surely been irreparable disaster! True, it was a really hard blow on us and on our science, but the portfolio of cutting-edge ideas and products had been so large that we managed to survive and to start developing again. In fact, Russia today is one of the most advanced high-tech countries in the world. And in many respects we are in the lead.

- Respects like what?

- I’ve shown you the synchrotron that is right below. It generates x-rays… As soon as it embarked on the path of industrial development, any country invariably tried to have some mega-facility built in its territory. It’s like an admission fee, a pass granting access to the club of states prepared to go ahead with science research. That’s what most of the industrializing countries used to do. Either we or the Americans agreed to meet their requests. But the elite group in that club still consisted only of those who were able to design and build such mega-devices on their own. Russia was invariably in the forefront.

These days, CERN is much in the news. You remember, it’s the nuclear research center on the border of France and Switzerland, the world’s largest laboratory of high energy physics. All accelerators there, including the Large Hadron Collider, use the same principle of opposing particle beams our physicists invented. Many parts and components, including magnets, are products of Russian research institutes. Now, the most important thing: inside the nearly 27-kilometer LHC ring, in which heavy particles are accelerated to tremendous energies, there are four so-called points of collision. These are detectors – mammoth structures the size of a five-storey building; two of them consist of elements made of lead tungstate monocrystals. Just imagine: one hundred tonnes of crystals within one structure. That’s the invention of Russian scientists. We also grew the crystals, manufactured the components and assembled the detectors. Hundreds of our specialists work at CERN on the permanent basis…

I’d like to drive the message home: practically all major science projects being implemented in Europe today were largely initiated by Russian scientists. Russia’s technological contribution is significant. For instance, just recently Rosatom and the Kurchatov Institute have provided nearly three hundred tonnes of a unique super-conductor cable for creating magnetic fields at ITER, the experimental thermonuclear reactor being built in southern France, between Nice and Marseilles. We outbid the Western competitors in a rather tough contest.

What is it I’m driving at? Economic sanctions and other instruments that are often in use in big politics are on one bank of the river, and science, on the opposite one. Russia has been an integral part of the world science landscape and it will remain so.

We don’t stay idle. At the site of the Kurchatov Institute in Gatchina a high-flux neutron research reactor is about to be launched. It’s one of the most powerful in the world. Second. In cooperation with Rosatom and Italian partners we are getting down to the development of a fundamentally new Tokamak, called Ignitor. The design of the project is almost ready, the money has been raised. There’s much practical work ahead for us. Also, we are beginning to promote the fourth generation of synchrotrons, unparalleled elsewhere.

Part 2
About a cast-iron alibi, humanoid servants and nature-like technologies

 

- Are you saying that that the latest realities – be it foreign sanctions or the internal economic crisis – are nothing but a mosquito bite for such a mammoth as the Kurchatov Institute?

- Everybody feels the general tensions, of course. But we seek to turn weaknesses into strengths.

- Does it work?

- Kurchatov used to say it is essential to correctly arrange the list of priorities and to pick the most crucial things from a long range of matters of importance. That’s the key question.

True, the external environment is very aggressive. But it is also an incentive. It’s like running a household. Once there is some money to spare, there promptly emerges the risk of buying lots of unnecessary things. Just in case. These days everybody has to count every ruble. True, these harsh conditions will knock out some, but many people, enterprises and organizations will get mobilized. That’s how the world goes round. The slump in the prices of fossil fuels and the introduction of sanctions against Russia look a good chance to me.

- Have you been affected personally?

- No, I was not put on any of the sanction lists. My freedom of travel about the world has not been restricted, but you know, I stopped making trips out of the country for the past two years of my own accord. It was a conscious decision. Don’t think that I’ve severed contacts with the outside world or that I’ve dropped out of the context. By no means. I just moved all meetings with foreigners here, to Russia. And I prefer to spend vacations at home. We have so many beautiful sites - those I’ve loved since my younger days - and so many places yet to be seen!

I’m not jingoistic at all, but each person should know and love one’s home country. Incoming tourism has slumped 40%. Also, the exchange rates of the euro and the dollar as they are today, travelling about Europe and to faraway lands may cost a pretty penny, but the people who are in the habit of travelling are reluctant to stay at home. They’ve just changed itineraries. Take it from me. Over a relatively short period of time I’ve been to Yaroslavl four times. By the day of its 1000th anniversary the city had been put in order. Modern-looking hotels were built, monuments restored and roads repaired. There’ve been changes for the better in the image of Tomsk, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg and Lipetsk… I’m telling you what I’ve seen for myself. Of late, we began to hold science conferences in nearby cities around Moscow. We’ve been to lots of places – Vladimir, Suzdal, Kostroma and St. Petersburg.

- You’ll be never forgiven that!

- What?

- You’ve just called St. Petersburg a “nearby city.”

- Mine is a cast-iron alibi. In my passport the ‘Place of birth’ line says “Leningrad”. I’ve always said that it is the best city in the world. Are you going to tell me now that Moscow, where I’ve lived since 1970, will never forgive me saying this, too? I’m joking, of course.

- When you addressed the Federation Council last autumn during a question-and- answer session as a guest expert, obviously you were not joking when you briefed the lawmakers on artificial cells reportedly capable of becoming a mass destruction weapon against a particular ethnic group. Also, there was a great stir about your speculations that technologically conditions were already in place for creating a new sub-species of homo sapiens – a so-called robotized human servant with downgraded identity. Such living creatures might be easily turned into servants easily performing only the desired list of functions, but never laying claim to being more what they are.

- Intellect is a commodity that is in the greatest demand. Only intellect is capable of yielding super-profits. The state that wants to be rich, strong and independent should concentrate its intellectual resources. For that it should create its own education system and develop and perfect it. But this is a long way to go. It may prove far easier to ‘skim the cream’ around the world, to lure in the planet’s brightest minds. Moreover, in this fashion you achieve a two-fold objective: you build up your own potential by inviting players from other teams and at the same time you weaken the rival.

For addressing the strategic tasks it is important to make the world intellect work for your own sake. To create a situation in which not only fellow citizens, but also foreigners who reside thousands of kilometers away will be doing what your country needs. What’s the way of achieving that? Put global science and education environment under control, steer it in the desirable direction and, if need be, finance it from the national budget. Create incentives to encourage research activity. May they go ahead addressing local tasks in their home countries, that is not prohibited, but the strategic goals must be set to them from one center.

It will be still better, if information about major scientific research is stored openly. You’ve done your job, you staged an experiment, you published an article in a magazine and placed an account on a website. In the meantime, somebody is keeping an eye on this and monitoring each step you take… Whenever a bright and resourceful scientist manifests shows up, he is approached at once with some lucrative proposals or, at least, the fruits of his labor are put to use, because the necessary details can be easily found in the detailed account available to one and all.

The system is arranged according to a plan, the rules are dictated. Scientometrics may be important but the benchmark quotation index was proposed by none other than Jorge Hirsch, a US citizen, a professor at the University of San Diego. We are rated according to the US methodology, from the standpoint of what will be found good and valuable for the United States. Not that they are bad and we are good. It’s sheer commerce. It’s a market Russia is not allowed to enter. We are welcome there only as consumers, and not as producers. At the latest meeting of the presidential council on science Vladimir Putin said quite correctly it made little sense to complain now after everything had been placed in foreign hands. Other countries are not obliged to accommodate your interests. Think up something of your own. It’s an incentive: put up resistance or be prepared to get enslaved.

The current system is arranged in a way that encourages publications in English- language magazines, for it is only these magazines can guarantee high Hirsch rates. As a matter of fact, this is disastrous for Russian-language science periodicals. When I spent sometime in the 1990s working in the United States, many researchers used to keep our academic magazines on their desks. A considerable share of them was translated by the American Institute of Physics. We even received royalties for publications from the copyright agency. As for the articles that were not translated, our overseas counterparts managed to make their way through them using a dictionary. Including those totally unfamiliar with the Russian language managed to do that. And they asked us to explain things they did not understand. We helped them. Now we are told to try to earn scores by publishing articles in their magazines. But this one-way street traffic is surely not on the Russian scientists’ plans…

- Why many counterparts have taken a skeptical attitude to your statements. What do you think?

- Here’s a bright illustration. When President Putin on April 18, 2007 held a special conference at the Kurchatov Institute on the development of nano-technologies in Russia, on creating a special state-run corporation, and on joining the project for building the European X-Ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL) in Germany, he heard a chorus of protesting voices from our academic quarters in response. Any new undertaking invariably meets with resistance and hostile attitudes. That’s an inalienable feature of human nature. These days, nanotechnologies have become part and parcel of our daily routine even at the consumer level. And even those who ten years ago argued louder than anyone else it was a hoax and nonsense, these days have turned nano-technologies’ most ardent advocates and enthusiasts.

Promotion of the concept of convergent NBICS (nano-, bio-, info-, cogno- and socio-) technologies will be the next phase.

- The Americans were the first to mention NBICS back in 2002 only to drop the theme. Now you’ve apparently retrieved the idea from the shelf where it has been gathering dust for the past decade or more to have presented it as an innovative step in science.

- That the United States has a similar concept I learned only after I looked into the development of the convergent technologies myself. These days they are more often called nature-like, using a well-coined phrase from Vladimir Putin. I participated in a science conference in Switzerland in 2006 and I heard from the Americans they were moving in about the same direction. I’m not making any copyright claims or saying that I am the brain father. The question is different. Science development follows certain logic.

The designers of the first computers realized well enough that the human brain is the most sophisticated, incomparable machine. Sixty years ago scientists were unable to create a biocomputer. When did they do then? They took a piece of silicon and used it to make an integrated circuit. In those days science was still unable to examine the structure of complex biological objects, because they are far more complex. The unit cell of a protein crystal contains hundreds of thousands of atoms, and that that of silicon, only eight… In the end, after spending trillions of dollars, humanity created solid body electronics, which in my point of view is one of the highest achievements of civilization.

Mikhail Kovalchuk and Rosnano’s Chief Anatoly Chubais Sergei Bobylev/TASS
Mikhail Kovalchuk and Rosnano’s Chief Anatoly Chubais
© Sergei Bobylev/TASS

At the same time, fundamentally new methods of research using the benefits of synchrotron radiation, neutrons, nuclear magnetic resonance and supercomputers made a real breakthrough in studying the structure, properties and fundamental laws of living bioorganic matter. Today we are prepared to couple the existing microelectronic technology with “living nature constructs” we have studied and to create nature-like technologies. The tool of choice to be used for creating them is convergence of several sciences – nano-, bio-, info-, cogno, and socio-humanitarian knowledge. This is a challenge of the 21st century equal in scale and ambition to what the nuclear and space project was last century!

Remember, I am a specialist in X-ray physics, crystallography, the uses of radiation and mega-devices. Throughout my life I remained at the junction of physics, chemistry, biology and informatics… At the Institute of Crystallography I spent many years on inter-disciplinary research. The synchrotron at the Kurchatov Institute - and I joined its operation in the late 1990s - is a direct extension of that line of research. It was on the basis of synchrotrons that the first nano-technological centers cropped up in the world in the 1990s. At the Kurchatov Institute nanotechnologies proved a new guideline of research that terminated the center’s stagnation and opened up tremendous prospects. Back ten years ago it was already clear that this is an intermediate step. I predicted in writing that the NBICS will be next. We’ve wasted no time. Here, at the Kurchatov Institute we created a center for convergent sciences and technologies having no equals around the world and also opened the first NBICS department on the basis of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, where I was the dean and now hold the position of the science doyen. Our main goal is to reproduce nature-like technologies and systems from power production and medicine to artificial intelligence.

Too bad some colleagues have been trying to put spokes in the wheels. They may be fighting me personally, but in doing so they hit science on the rebound.

Part 3
About intrigues, the younger brother and acquaintance with Vladimir Putin

 

- Why did you become so unsuitable? You were rejected at the elections to the Academy of Sciences and you were not confirmed in the position of the director of the Crystallography Institute in 2013…

- As for the election as an academician, I was elected actually unanimously by secret ballot in the section and the department of the Russian Academy of Sciences corresponding to my scientific specialization. But then intrigues started at the Academy’s general meeting whose role consisted in just formally confirming the results of the elections at the specialized department. Hundreds of people that are specialists from other areas usually vote at such a meeting. And these people rejected my election. Such voting by scientists who had not the slightest idea of my scientific activity, had never publicly spoken against me or held an open discussion could not take place without a deliberate orchestrated effort with the use of various methods, including a frenzied campaign in some media sources.

Now about my endorsement in the position of the director of the Crystallography Institute. The commission of the presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences recognized the [Kurchatov] Institute as one of the best at the Academy but then members of the same Academy voted twice against my candidature for the director’s post, which I had held for already fifteen years by that time. Is there logic in this? This act was the direct continuation of the campaign against me.

Apparently, someone had decided that I was going to claim the post of the president of the Russian Academy of Sciences. And, of course, the Academy’s Fronde fell for the propaganda trick to smear the Kovalchuk brothers and thus decided to show its disrespect in this way. This is the underlying reason for this vote of rejection, I believe.

- Do such cause-and-effect relationships strongly impede you in your life?

- It is sooner my temper, my emotionality that is sometimes excessive, which impede me, I don’t know… I remember that back at the beginning of my work at the Crystallography Institute, a female employee of our laboratory wrote a joking devotion to me:

“The pace of life

Is the relentless but rewarding lane

So hold your strut,

And keep the flame ablaze your butt!

Although this is a joke, it contains a grain of truth. President of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Academician Anatoly Aleksandrov once told me: “I was like you when I was young. I was energetic and was always striving for something, offering ideas while everyone was brushing aside all my initiatives.” From the height of the years I have lived through, I understand that many people were irritated and are irritated by my active efforts and excessive initiative activity. I experienced a lot of things: misunderstanding, betrayal, open enmity and behind-the-scenes infighting. It will suffice to mention a story with the defense of my doctorate thesis: people wrote slanderous letters about me, false reviews and tried to exert pressure on the Higher Attestation Commission.

- But still you didn’t answer the question about your younger brother, Yuri Kovalchuk.

- Perhaps, you know that he is also a physicist, Doctor of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. He received a state award at the age of thirty-five. But my brother has long been living his own life and he’ll comment himself on everything he deems it necessary, if he wants. I want to make it clear that I moved to Moscow immediately after graduating from Leningrad State University back in 1970 as my wife comes from Moscow. My wife Lena is the daughter of a famous historian, Academician Yuri Polyakov and she herself is a historian specializing in the history of Ireland. I was sent to work at the Crystallography Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences. At this Institute, as the saying goes, I climbed the career ladder from a trainee researcher to the Institute’s director, Doctor of Sciences, professor and corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Meanwhile, my brother followed his own path in life. At first, he was making a scientific career, which was, incidentally, very successful. Then he moved into business, an absolutely new area for him, which was successful for my brother as well. But you need to talk with him about his close circle and his friends.

I’m telling you about myself. I’m quite frequently asked about my acquaintance with the Russian president. My first encounter with Vladimir Putin took place here, at the Kurchatov Institute, on October 1, 1999. Actually speaking, this cannot even be called a full-fledged encounter. Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attended a ceremony of opening the Institute’s synchrotron and at that time I was not among the Institute’s heads, had not participated in the event preparation and was standing in the back rows in a group of the Institute’s employees.

- And how did you get the post of the Kurchatov Institute director while remaining the head of the Academy’s Crystallography Institute?

- Academician Yevgeny Velikhov with whom I’ve been acquainted since the early 1980s invited me to head the synchrotron project. The Crystallography Institute took part in its construction. I agreed because this was my scientific specialization. And in 2005 Velikhov proposed that I should take up the post of the Kurchatov Institute director. At first, I refused because I was not sure that I would cope with the task but Yevgeny Pavlovich [Velikhov] has the ability to find proper arguments. When I first came to the Kurchatov Institute, it was not in its best condition and its staff received me with caution.

Like everywhere in the 1990s in Russia, a part of the institute’s employees had adapted themselves fairly well to new market conditions and thus my arrival was not perceived quite benevolently, to put it mildly. The staffers were afraid of something new and changes at the institute. They regularly sent complaints to the newspaper Pravda [still one of the most influential newspapers in the country at that time], the Prosecutor’s Office and the presidential administration...

- Under the decree signed by President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the New Year, you’ll be performing the duties of the Kurchatov Institute director in the next five years. But how do you expect at the same time to be the dean of the physics department at the Petersburg University, head of the chair at the physics and technical department of Moscow State University and be the presenter of a weekly program titled: “Stories from the Future” on TV Channel Five?

- It was by chance that I got into television. When the topic of nano-technologies emerged, the TV Channel Culture asked me for an interview. One talk resulted in a cycle of ten programs. Sometime later, we switched to making programs on TV Channel One but stayed there for a short time: of course, it is necessary to popularize science but not at half past one at night! Then Channel Five started to change its format and TV viewing grid and offered our producer company ASS-TV to switch to making programs for them.

During a day, we prepare four TV programs for a month ahead, which are then broadcast once a week. Of course, this is a substantial load on me but in some respect this is also a fun, to be more exact, gymnastics for the brain. Someone does crossword puzzles while I make a series of TV programs on very diverse topics. We talk about the development of the Arctic, for example, at the beginning and then about genetics and in a hour we can switch to archeological excavations or synchrotron radiation.

As for my work as the dean of the physics department in my home university in St. Petersburg, you should understand that I have never tried to shoulder the entire heap of administrative duties. By the way, this refers to the Kurchatov Institute as well. There are administrators there who can sign various papers, orders, resolutions without me. You can quite assign routine work to a reliable and competent deputy. And I have also never sought to subordinate day-to-day work to me. To my mind, a manager should be responsible for the strategy, the choice of priorities and assign proper and verified specialists to key areas. In this case, management in the manual mode won’t be required and the system becomes automatic and helps get rid of the daily routine work. For me, this is extremely important as a creative person.

I consider this as my achievement from the viewpoint of organizing the process. I first practiced this method at the Crystallography Institute where there were 500 employees and then applied this principle at the Kurchatov Institute, which today employs over 12,000 people at all its branches. 

Part 4
About poetry, wine, Pobeda car and countryside house without heating

 

- It is not only work that fills a person’s life.

- No matter how paradoxically this may sound, I have a rest while working. The point is that you can change the type of activity and the wider the spectrum, the brighter the picture!

 When I was young, I was fond of poetry. I like poems by Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva, Boris Pasternak and Alexander Pushkin. I know many verses by heart and, perhaps, now I’ll be able to recite large chunks from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Boris Godunov and Bronze Horseman.

 Already in my mature age, I unexpectedly discovered … wine for myself. I’m a Soviet person and grew up at the time when dry and fortified wines were on sale. But I didn’t know a thing about wine types and grades. And how could I know this at that time? Then I discovered that there were a far greater number of wines than you could imagine. This discovery came upon me when I was in America, to which I frequently flew in the 1990s on business trips. I would go to a reception on the occasion of opening a scientific conference and a waiter would come up to me and ask: “What do you like to drink? I would routinely answer: “wine.” But at this point a waiter would start asking me specifying questions: “red or white wine, French or Californian, the harvest year, etc.” So, I got tired of that and decided to study the history of the issue. As a result, I collected a large library on wines. The publisher BBPG published a splendid series of books on the wines made in France, Italy, Spain, Georgia and Australia…, actually all across the world. And now this series finally covers Russia.

- But you need to drink wines, not to read them.

- Right. After reading a lot, I started to collect wines little by little. There was a period when I worked in Italy and my family and I frequently went there for a holiday. As I don’t like sitting idle, there seemed to be a goal for me: I would look through a wine catalog and start searching for a wine of a specific producer and a specific harvest year. This is a good method to raise your general culture. As a result, I made a fairly good collection.

- A wine cellar?

- No, I keep them in a wine bar.

- Do you have favorite “collections?”

- It was important for me to study the issue. I have acquaintances who buy rare wine bottles at auctions and keep them in specially equipped rooms in bank vaults … But I don’t practice such things. I calmed down when I understood that I could distinguish wine-making regions and could feel nuances. A pleasure should not become your job. And I didn’t plan to turn into a professional sommelier.

Perhaps today I give preference to the domestic wine, in the first place, the south-Russian and Crimean wines. Believe me that our wines are no inferior to renowned foreign brands and, like before, are already gaining international recognition. For example, red wine made from the original Krasnostop Zolotvsky grape variety known since ancient times is no inferior to the Tuscan wine.

What else? I like to travel and know fairly well history, painting and architecture because initially I was going to be an art expert and enroll at the university’s history department and I even led tours of Leningrad…

- For money?

- Of course, not. This was a hobby for me. I can tell actually about each building in the center of the city, the Nevsky Prospect, the historical district of Kolomna in St. Petersburg and hold a tour of places associated with Pushkin and tell about the Petersburg of Fyodor Dostoyevsky…

 I work much and try from time to time to switch my brain to something else in order not be obsessed over my work. Do you remember what Karl Marx said about this? “What is leisure? A change of occupation.” Everything depends on the fantasy and the desire to avoid making your life dull and monotonous.

At some moment, I had a passion for domestic cars. The first car I learnt to drive at the age of ten was my father’s Pobeda (Victory) car.  Today I can reassemble the car carburetor with my eyes closed because I used to do this operation many times. I did this even on the bank of the Chudsky Lake in Estonia at a freezing temperature of minus 30 degrees Centigrade! On another occasion, I was replacing a broken axle shaft in a forest. And so on. You never forget such moments!

 As my friends knew about my nostalgic love for old Soviet cars, they gave me a Pobeda car as a present for my jubilee, exactly the same, which had been in our family for many years. I use this car together with booklets on the products of the Soviet car-making industry, which I collected, to educate my grandchildren in the patriotic spirit and explain the car layout to them.

I also like snow racers. You can hardly race aboard these vehicles at a high speed anywhere in Europe, except Russia where we have vast expanses for that! I return from work to my house in the countryside where I make ten racing circuits at a speed of some 100 kilometers per hour and feel good. This racing clears your brain perfectly! High speed and risk always give you an adrenalin rush. It is true, though, that I have almost had no time to race this year because of the whims of weather.

My love for St. Petersburg and the former Leningrad has taken a specific form: all the walls in my office are covered, so to speak, with images of my home city: from photographs to drawings of unknown amateur artists. Images of the charming belfry of the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral built by architect Savva Chevakinsky on the bank of the Kryukov Canal hold a special place in the collection of these photographs and pictures. Apart from admiration, this architectural masterpiece also evokes a lot of personal associations. I remember that once, when I was a first-form pupil, my nanny didn’t meet me after the classes and I went home myself. I stopped on the bridge across the Canal and started waving my schoolbag. I whirled it around until it got out of my hands and splashed into the water. But it didn’t sink and started drifting along the stream. At this point, my nanny came. She quickly understood the situation, found some sailor who got into a boat and fished out my swollen schoolbag. We returned home where my mother was taking out one water-swollen textbook after another from the schoolbag, slapping me at the back of my head with a textbook and putting it on the stove to dry up. These are some of my recollections, for which I love pictures with the Kryukov Canal!

Interviewed by Andrei Vandenko

Born November 8, 1959 in Luhansk, Ukraine. In 1982, Andrei Vandenko graduated from the Kiev National University of Taras Shevchenko specializing in journalism. Since 1989, he lives and works in Moscow. Vandenko has more than 20 years of experience in the interview genre. He was published in the major part of top Russian media outlets and is a winner of professional awards.

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